What is Ergonomics?

Ergonomics is the science of fitting the job to the worker. In the workplace, ergonomic principles are used to make alterations to a job so that it conforms to the person doing that job, rather than to force the person to fit the job. Redesigning various job functions to match a person's stature will reduce stress on the body and eliminate many potential injuries associated with the overuse of muscles, unnatural postures, and repetitive motions.

Ergonomic solutions may involve the redesign of tasks, workstations, tools, lighting, and equipment to fit a worker's physical capabilities and limitations. This may mean adjusting the height of a workstation or a computer screen, or rearranging the steps in a process so the worker will not have to lift and twist in the same motion.

Today, technological advances which result in more specialized tasks, higher assembly line speeds, and increased repetition are often major causes of ergonomic problems. Consequently, workers' hands, wrists, arms, shoulders, backs, and legs may be subjected to thousands of repetitive twisting, forceful, or flexing motions during a typical workday. When this occurs on the job, the stress on those body parts builds up over time and results in musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).

The goal of a workplace ergonomics program is to reduce or eliminate the risk factors that lead to MSDs. Jobs that expose workers to excessive vibration, repetitive motions, heavy lifting, awkward postures, and continual contact pressure will be assessed and ways found to reduce exposure to those factors that cause MSDs. Identifying ergonomic risk factors in your workplace is the first step toward making changes that will improve the safety and health of all workers.

Bureau of Labor Statistics Reports on Ergonomic Injuries

In their 1998 report on lost-worktime injury and illness characteristics, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that workers afflicted with carpal tunnel syndrome missed an average of 24 days of work. Women suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome more often than men. Surprisingly, more women sustained carpal tunnel syndrome by operating machinery, on assembly lines, and tending retail stores than they did typing, keying, and performing other duties associated with office workers.

Virtually all cases of carpal tunnel syndrome resulted from stress or strain on a worker's wrist due to a task's repetitive nature. Examples include grasping and unravelling bolts of cloth, scanning groceries, typing or data entry, and cutting meat or poultry on an assembly line. According to the BLS, these repetitive motion injuries resulted in the longest absences from work — an average of 15 days.

In 1998, there were nearly 593,000 musculoskeletal disorders reported, accounting for more than one out of three of the injuries and illnesses involving recuperation away from work. Manufacturing and services industries each accounted for 26 percent of the MSDs, followed by retail trade with 15 percent. Three occupations — nursing aides, orderlies, and attendants; truck drivers; and laborers, non-construction — together accounted for one out of five MSDs.

As the work force continues to age and medical costs continue to escalate, the cost of ergonomic-related illnesses in the workplace will rise. If you look beyond worker health and the dollars-and-cents side of the issue, however, there is at least one other reason why you should be concerned with ergonomic hazards in the workplace. Even though OSHA's ergonomics standard has been withdrawn, the Agency can and will continue to cite and fine companies with a pattern of ergonomic-related injuries under the 5(a)(1) or General Duty clause of the OSH Act.

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